Regular readers have oft witnessed my bemoaning of those who claim to “hate” Merlot. Merlot is a varietal, and one that good winemakers worldwide to myriad things with, rendering each bottle different from the last. A Merlot from Napa will look quite different than most Right Bank Bordeaux, and I’ve had lots of great Merlot from Washington State and elsewhere in the world as well. Every glass of Merlot, every bottle, is different, and while you might not like them all, to dismiss the entire varietal is foolhardy… so why do I have such strong feelings about Chardonnay?
Also a varietal, I believe that I was introduced to Chardonnay the wrong way. Understandably, I started on cheap Chard the same way I started on cheap everything else, but I was also introduced to a very narrow scope of the varietal, the once-popular California approach that took the already round grape and, through malolactic fermentation and aggressive oak exposure, rendered a wine that tasted a bit like a dipping a number two pencil in butter and then sucking on it. After enough of these, I was soon in the “I can’t stand Chardonnay camp,” which, of course, is foolhardy.
Chardonnay is fascinating, in part because of how differently it can present depending upon how it was made, where the fruit was sourced from, the vintage, and more. This diversity makes it interesting, but also presents challenges. If you don’t know much about what you’ve got in the bottle, pairing it can be a gamble; I’d pair a tank-fermented Chardonnay much like a Pinot Grigio, while I’d pair an oaky butter-bomb very differently. Similarly, whether or not it suits your guests, or a warm night on a patio, can be a challenge. With some of my favorite producers, like Alpha Omega, you can find tech sheets online easily that will let you know how the wine was made and clue you in on what to expect, while with others, like Rombauer’s infamous Chardonnay, their consistency is such that I can pour that bottle knowing precisely what’s in it.
Over time, I’ve found a number of wonderful Chardonnays that fit my preferences. If you like the oaky, butter Chardonnay, there’s tons of it out there and have at it. For me, the more restrained, Chablis-style is something I love. Sur lies, a winemaking technique in which dead yeast is stirred to give the wine a creamy texture, is something I enjoy, while unbaked Chardonnays certainly have their place in my cellar as well. So, with that in mind, the following are my top five Chardonnays that I have reviewed on itheewine, and a link to the blog post I wrote about them previously. Pictured throughout this post are three other takes on the varietal that I have also enjoy recently.
2013 Buehler Vineyards: https://itheewine.com/2016/05/11/buehler-vineyards-chardonnay-2013-93-pts/
2013 Pellet Estate: https://itheewine.com/2016/07/13/pellet-estate-barrel-fermented-chardonnay-2013-94-pts/
2015 Alpha Omega Toyon Vineyard: https://itheewine.com/2018/02/13/tight-fit-alpha-omega-toyon-vineyard-carneros-chardonnay-2015/
2015 Smith Madrone: https://itheewine.com/2017/12/23/something-about-the-best-laid-plans-smith-madrone-chardonnay-2015/
2001 Chateau Montelena: https://itheewine.com/2017/05/23/piece-de-resistance-review-2001-chateau-montelena-chardonnay/
Of course, I’ve had a lot of other great Chardonnay, and this barely scratches the surface. I’d be happy to talk about those with you if you’re seeking something specific. I’m really into what Washington State is doing with theirs right now, and I find French takes on the varietal admittedly a little intimidating but something I want to start tasting more of. Please just remember that you don’t hate Chardonnay. You may have strongly disliked the one you had with dinner last week, but there’s no chance it is representative of the varietal, probably not even the region from whence it hails. As I prepare to spend next week in the Napa Valley, where Chardonnay is one of the most planted and most vinted varietals, I look forward to new discoveries to share with you.
Cheers to diversity, in wine and in everything else,